Vietnam was just another stretch of tropical coastline from seven miles up and 150 miles out.
“It was all green with nice sandy looking beaches,” recalled Wayne Wachsmuth, 81, of North Newton Township. “It looked like a nice place to visit.”
Edging closer to target, the landscape changed and from his vantage in the cockpit of the B-52D bomber, the Butler County native could see towns, cities and villages take shape across the horizon.
There were roads cutting through the countryside linking supply dumps to mountain outposts. White stripes clearly defined by the necessity of war.
“You didn’t want jungle up to the edge of the road,” said Wachsmuth, once an Air Force captain now a retired lieutenant colonel. The convoys could come under attack
So the U.S. military during the war defoliated the land out to 100 yards along the cart way denying the enemy the cover they needed to set up ambushes.
A pilot on a heavy bomber, Wachsmuth never set foot in Vietnam but flew over hostile territory during 133 missions logged in between March 1966 and July 1968.
All but three missions were against targets in the South including base camps, ammunition dumps, truck parks and troop concentrations. The rest were aimed at cutting supply routes from Laos into the North.
Wachsmuth never saw the bombs drop or explode on target. Once while flying close to the Cambodian border, he had to execute a sharp and rapid turn. This allowed him a glimpse of the smoke rising up from the ground marking the aftermath of a bomb run.
The ordnance was dropped by radar off a return echo from the ground. Only the radar navigator near the center of the bomber could view the drop zone and that’s if he was looking through the optical sight.
“He would do that to see if there were any secondary explosions,” said Wachsmuth as that was a sign of a direct hit on an ammunition or fuel dump. “It was all rather impersonal.
“Our effectiveness was strictly dependent on how good the intelligence was,” he added. “They tried to find where the sensitive points were.” For example, experts once used the radio transmissions of enemy ground forces to hone in and triangulate the coordinates of a base camp.
War had evolved since the generation before when bomber crews had to brave fighter planes and heavy flak in missions over occupied Europe and Nazi Germany.
The only sign Wachsmuth saw of anti-aircraft artillery was a single puff of black smoke that appeared suddenly off in the distance to one side of his aircraft during a mission over the Demilitarized Zone.
“It was very inaccurate,” he recalled. “So far away…It didn’t make sense to pay attention to it.”
There were tense moments on a few missions when the electronic warfare officer warned the crew the plane was being scanned by surface-to-air missile fire control radar. Nothing ever came of it except jittery nerves.
The enemy had to be careful to use radar sparingly as turning on the gear would risk detection by U.S. attack jets that could swoop in with anti-radar missiles.
“At night, when we flew over there, you could see flares from different outposts where they might be under attack,” Wachsmuth said. “You could hear the emergency transmissions. Once in a while you could hear a beeper go off when a parachute opens up.”
The beeper was a signal that the pilot or crew of a tactical aircraft had to bail out over the combat zone. The hope was rescuers could pinpoint a location to evacuate the downed airmen.
Wachsmuth had three tours of duty over Vietnam. The first tour ran from March and September 1966 and consisted of about 53 missions flown out of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
The typical mission profile called for a take-off time around 1 to 2 a.m. for the start of a six-hour inbound flight to the war zone. The goal was to hit the target around dawn in the hopes of catching enemy personnel either sleeping or in a concentrated area for maximum destructive effect.
The learning curve for bomber pilots flying out of Guam included a big dip in the almost two-mile long runway. “It was downhill for the first third…Uphill for the second two-thirds,” he recalled.
A B-52D at take-off weighed about 445,000 pounds including 200,000 pounds of fuel and 45,000 pounds of bombs. The sheer size of the aircraft required the pilot to pull all the way back on the flight control yoke to have enough lift to clear the edge of the runway.
Once at cruising altitude, the crew relied on auto pilot for level flight to a point just west of the Philippines where the B-52 was refueled in midair by tanker aircraft.
The pilot or co-pilot was at the controls for this delicate operation which involved the transfer of fuel by a way of a boom that connected the tanker with a receptacle on the bomber fuselage.
The bombers usually flew in a three-plane cell and dropped the bombs together onto a “target box” roughly 1000 ft. wide by 3000 ft. long. It only took the ordnance half a minute to reach the ground.
Some bombs were set to explode in an airburst just above the surface to kill soft targets like vehicles and troop concentrations. Others were set with a time delay fuse so that the bomb could penetrate and destroy underground bunkers and tunnel complexes.
Vietnam veterans who have witnessed a B-52 bomber strike have compared it to an earthquake with shockwaves going out miles from the point of impact, Wachsmuth said. “It was exceedingly impressive. That was an awful lot of Hell.”
After the drop, the bombers turned around for the return flight of six hours back to Guam.
Rules of Engagement
Wachsmuth was a co-pilot during his first tour and for part of this second tour which ran from April to May 1967. The following year he returned as a pilot in command of his own crew from mid-January to early July 1968.
As the war progressed, the number of launch points for B-52 bombers increased. Early on bomber missions were staged out of Guam but gradually bases were added in Okinawa and Thailand.
Bomber crews were frustrated at every turn by rules of engagement developed by a national command authority out of touch with conditions on the ground, Wachsmuth said. “We could not hit everything in the Hanoi area. It had to be approved by the White House.”
He added targets around Hanoi included a system of dikes along the Red River used to control flooding. The U.S. government announced early on the dikes would never be attacked from the air. The enemy took advantage of this and used the dikes to store fuel oil and gasoline drums.
Hai Phong port was also off-limits to B-52 bomber strikes out of fear that Russian ships were using the harbor as a base, Wachsmuth said. There was a sanctuary area 20 to 30 miles along the northern border with Red China which restricted the ability of U.S. aircraft to bomb a railroad line bringing in supplies to the North Vietnamese war effort.
The enemy also knew that B-52 bombers crews could not drop ordnance within 9,000 ft. of a friendly position. “We didn’t want to risk casualties,” Wachsmuth said.
The North Vietnamese exploited this policy by building their support structure as close as possible to the front-line of a ground assault. “They had an expression: If you are going to fight the Yanks, grab them by the belt buckle and be right up tight,” Wachsmuth said.
During the siege of the Marine firebase at Khe Sanh, there were B-52 bombers flying support missions around-the-clock. Orders came down from the command authority to move the restriction on bombing near friendly forces from 9,000 ft. out to 3,000 ft. out.
This change in policy caught the enemy off guard and resulted in massive damage, Wachsmuth said. “They took it in the shorts on that one.”
Following his third deployment, Wachsmuth returned stateside to become part of the initial cadre of pilots trained on the FB-111 fighter-bomber. He served 30 years in the Air Force from 1957 to 1987.
Wachsmuth later worked as a licensed battlefield guide in Gettysburg from 1994 to 2014. He is married and has a grown son who works for the Air Force as a civilian.